Monday 14 October 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Champions park free-wheeling brilliance for remorseless suffocation'


Kerry's David Clifford following the match. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Kerry's David Clifford following the match. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Forget about the famous five, this was an All-Ireland final good enough to crown a 10-in-a-row, or any historic achievement in the annals of Gaelic football.

The two teams let it flow. They didn't necessarily want it to flow but it poured out like a torrent anyway. End to end, up and down, coast to coast, Dublin attacked, Kerry attacked, then the Dubs, then Kerry, again and again and again.

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And on top of that, the shooting was so classical from play that we almost forgot you could score from frees in this game. The finishing was an exhibition of precision, the ball curling between the posts with such regularity, at times it seemed inevitable that an umpire would reach for the flag as soon as it left the player's foot.

Old-school championship veterans might complain that it was an exhibition in more ways than one. That it lacked the heavy body-shots and claustrophobic aggression and fearsome collisions that are supposed to be baked into the marrow of the game. There wasn't a lot of this all right, and maybe there wasn't time for it because everything was happening too fast; the players were too fit and too athletic to allow themselves get bogged down in a dogfight. There was too much ground to cover and too much running to be done. If you couldn't run hard and run fast you'd have been left behind. The aerobic levels on display were once again a marvel to behold.

This was a match for athletes not sloggers, for technicians not brawlers. But it didn't mean it was a match without heart.

It was full of the heart that is required to track every run when no one is looking, to join the attack and help out in defence, to obey one's conscience when the lungs are screaming and the legs are jellying from fatigue. The effort from both sides was enormous.

And if they couldn't be separated in terms of that Herculean honesty, then a laurel should go to the underdogs for hanging tough when at times it looked like the champs might canter into the distance. But Kerry would not go away. Even when Dublin took out the big stick after half-time and dished out the concussive punch that was Eoin Murchan's breakaway goal, Kerry got back off the canvas and replied with a stream of piercing jabs, as they had done throughout the first half.

They would not go away, they were just worn down in the end. Finally the wides started mounting and finally Dublin's all-time greatness eroded their resistance.

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It will surely be immensely satisfying to Jim Gavin, his staff and players, that they were made to earn this landmark achievement the hard way. They were sent down deep into the salt water to find the silver and bring it back to the surface.

Indeed, had they not accumulated such geological levels of experience over the last half-dozen years and more, they might not have had the strength of mind to cope with a team that was doing everything to get inside their heads. A less battled-hardened platoon might have got a dose of the bends.

Kerry's black-belt finishers, David Clifford and Paul Geaney, were showing plenty of attitude to match their class. They were not treating the Dublin full-back line with any deference, especially in the first half. The challengers in general were getting multiple bodies behind the ball and springing counter-attacks that had Kerry supporters roaring them on.

And when they put Jack McCaffrey on his backside late in that first half and came raiding downfield, the symbolism was not lost on those same supporters.

It was the Dublin tearaway who'd ripped them apart repeatedly a fortnight earlier. And now he was being stripped of the ball and left watching as a wave of green and gold went charging towards the other end.

The Dubs had led by four after nine minutes: five shots, five points, and the champs were looking ominously commanding. What's more, O'Callaghan and Kilkenny had come to the party. They were causing as much wreckage as Clifford and Geaney.

Kerry had tested the Dublin full-back line with a succession of early bombs from distance, dropping in around the square, obviously hoping to extract the maximum reward, be it from play or a penalty, as per the drawn game. Stephen Cluxton was calm in dealing with the ordinance and the Dublin defence coped.

But Kerry's movement and field craft was more subtle thereafter and this, allied to their refusal to be unnerved, saw them stabilise and slowly eat away at Dublin's superiority.

By half-time they were level. If ever there was a chance of the champions being spooked, this was it. Dublin had thrown a lot of leather in that first half and had no margin to show for it at the break. Kerry, presumably, knew what would be coming in the third quarter - the Dubs would throw petrol on the fire in this period, as they usually do. It duly came, and far faster than anyone anticipated, with Murchan brazenly ripping his way straight down the neck of Kerry's defence before burying the shot. Would this be the game-breaker? It was obvious by now that goals were going to be scarce.

A point was added and all of a sudden we had what looked like the decisive salvo. Still, Dublin were not permitted to cruise to the crown. They still had to quarry it, and in the end it was victory more by remorseless suffocation than free-wheeling brilliance.

Then suddenly it was over. The game had flown by. Dublin were ushered into immortality. They stand alone on a plinth now of their own making.

The Five belongs to them and them alone. Last night in Croke Park they wrote the first draft of a new history, having been forced to fight their way to the final whistle, unable to contemplate history at all.

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